How Long Will Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Hot Streak Last?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2014

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., smiles as he stands talking with crew members in the garage during NASCAR Sprint Cup auto racing practice Saturday, March 1, 2014, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Off to the best start of his Sprint Cup career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved Sunday in Phoenix that his Daytona 500 win last week was no fluke.

If anything, it was a precursor of things to come.

Even though he came up just a bit short in The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, just barely finishing second to race winner Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt made it crystal clear he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the 2014 season.

Never in his career has he started out with a win and a runner-up finish in the first two Sprint Cup races. Such a start bodes more than well for the remaining 34 races on the schedule.

So how long can Earnhardt keep his hot streak going?

With the winning attitude he's shown thus far, along with the motivation and momentum carried over from last season—particularly the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup when he was the most consistent driver behind champion Jimmie Johnson—Earnhardt has gone from being a question mark coming into the season to perhaps the biggest threat to Johnson's bid to win a record-tying seventh Cup crown.

Granted, Johnson and Earnhardt are Hendrick Motorsports teammates. They've been such for the last six seasons, now in their seventh. They've existed as friends, brothers and comrades-in-arms, just like Jeff Gordon and the most recent addition to the HMS stable, Kasey Kahne.

At HMS, it's an all-for-one, one-for-all mindset. What's good for Johnson is good for Gordon, Earnhardt and Kahne.

But let's face it, how can a teammate continue to watch another one succeed and do great things without saying to himself, "Why can't I do the same thing as him? Why can't that be me holding the Sprint Cup championship trophy?"

And that's what has happened with Earnhardt.

Since team owner Rick Hendrick put Earnhardt together with crew chief Steve Letarte more than two years ago, the biggest change has not been Earnhardt on the track, but rather off the track.

It's very clear that Letarte got Junior to start believing in himself and his ability in a way that no other crew chief before him has been able to do—certainly no one since Tony Eury Sr. did early in Junior's career with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Letarte showed Earnhardt that he had championship-caliber talent, even if he had only two wins since the start of the 2007 season—and prior to last Sunday at Daytona, only one of those came with Letarte on Earnhardt's pit box (in 2012).

And all the while, Earnhardt kept watching Johnson win races and championships.

Somewhere along the way, Letarte switched Earnhardt's mindset from envying Johnson to making him want to be like Johnson. The first step to being a champion is wanting to be like another champion.

Junior has learned a great deal from Johnson. How could he not, being a teammate for four of Johnson's six Cup championships?

And now in 2014, Earnhardt has started by making a statement that to beat Jimmie, you have to be Jimmie. You have to have Jimmie's confidence, Jimmie's bravado and Jimmie's winning attitude. Every track that Jimmie races on is Jimmie's house.

But now after the first two races of 2014, Junior has shown that each track is not Jimmie's house any more.

They're now Junior's, with likely a lot more still to come.

The headline at the top of this story is "How Long Will Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Hot Streak Last?"

Perhaps a better question is, "Why does it have to end?"

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